Evil Asian Football Clubs

Man, last night was intense, wasn’t it? I was really sure Western Sydney Wanderers would have blown it at the last minute, it’d had been 1-1 at full time, and Al Hilal would have steamrolled either in extra times (two goals) or penalty shootouts. But not. They were holding on, with Ante Covic blocked all possible shots or Al Hilal just flunked their great chances.

I was still thinking of writing from another angle, but Al Hilal’s reaction to the full time whistle confirmed my thought – instead of attacking bumbling referee Yuichi Nishimura, Nasser Al Shamrani and other Al Hilal players were attacking Western Sydney players instead.

The reason was same with the vitriolic hatred shown by Guangzhou Evergrande supporters toward Western Sydney, hatred for the ‘white men’ Australians. There was a big difference though. Al Hilal supporters showed themselves to be a good sport, in contrast to the club. At least after the end of the match, when they asked the wandering Australians to take group pictures of the men in blue jerseys. So, at the risk of walking through a painful memory lane (full of muggers and rats), I present several evil football clubs who were in the AFC Champions League final.

1. Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia)

Laurentiu from Arabia. Would Mourinho wear a bowler hat before the Champions League final? Or Pep wearing Lederhosen?

The Boss is indeed a titan of Asian football. Since Saudi players cannot play overseas, of course the best talents play in Saudi Professional League. Their Champions League matches feature full houses, which is a rarity – even their crowd counts often trump other Saudi competitors. Saudi oil, which is used for buying Ferraris instead of building better schools and creating employment for locals, was of course also used to buy football superstars (money from the oil, not the petrol itself) like Brazilians Mario Zagallo and Rivellino. And so Saudi’s orientation on Brazilian football was born, and in early 1990s they earned the “Brazil of Asia” moniker, due to their Brazilian links, individualized playing style, and since most of their footballers are African Arabs (gettit?). Not even Zico could turn Japan into  “Brazil of Asia”, after all.

Al Hilal won the 1991 and 2000 Asian Club Championship but surprisingly they never won the ‘new’ Champions League (wow. I thought they did. Apparently I confused them with their Jeddah rivals Al Ittihad).

My problem with Al Hilal began after I learned that the club complained about the absence of luxury in Sydney while Prince Al Waleed bin Talal promised big bonus for the club. In 2013 he made big fuss with Forbes since the magazine’s estimation of his wealth is below his (while many ethnic Chinese moguls said the magazine always overestimate their fortunes). To the point of threatening to sue Forbes, weeping on the phone, and hiring some white men to publish scathing papers against the magazine.

The club, meanwhile, complained about the hick town that was Sydney, saying that the stadium was shabby (unlike the wonderful King Fahd Stadium) and that the hotel they were staying (I assume Pullman Quay Grand Sydney Harbour) was too small (because unlike Saudi Arabia, Australia has this strange concept of wealth redistribution).

Back in Saudi Arabia, coach Laurentiu Reghecampf donned his Laurentiu of Arabia look, saying no way in hell Wanderers could defeat hims the second time, while Vice President Prince Abdulrahman bin Musaad asked Saudis to pray and do charity works, so that the pleased Allah will help Al Hilal with victory. Theeen…another VP, Mohamad al Hmaidani, called Al Hilal supporters to beat up other clubs’ supporters claiming bin Talal’s free ticket offers, added with obligatory “Yo’ Mama” expression.

At the first half, Al Hilal supporters used laser beams to intimidate the Wanderers (I expect it on the upcoming AFF Suzuki Cup. Idiots), unaware that the radiation gave Ante Covic superpower. Nassir Al Shamrani, one of Saudi’s finest strikers, became the villain of the final after repeatedly attacking substitute Matthew Spiranovic (Nishimura ignored, funny guy), then spat on him, and his club went on to win the Fair Play Award (previous winners were always Japanese and Korean clubs).

2. Guangzhou Evergrande (China)

What’s this, early football video game where the players use the same animation?

I tried to look the silver lining of Chinese football. When China were in the 2002 World Cup, I felt the great moment of Pan-Asian pride (of course, I relished the Germany 8 Saudi Arabia 0 match). But Chinese attitude in politics, environment, human rights, and its clubs attitude, made it harder for me to appreciate any bit of my ancestors’ homeland.

Again, Western Sydney Wanderers. Again, Juric scored the single goal in a night in Parramatta. Again, the richer club made several threats against the Australians. We are giants with wealth and power you can’t imagine. Evergrande even could take the brag to another notch – our coach had won the World Cup and the UEFA Champions League and our playmaker was good enough to play in the World Cup (I always insert Diamanti into my Italy 23). We are unbeatable. Our fanatical supporters will surround you in a massive dome you never seen before (again, Evergrande relied on female supporters, unlike Al Hilal who shunned them). We will show you the power of Asian football that will make you speechless. Prepare to suffer.

Essentially, both the royal Saudi and Chinese (for a communist state, they take their royalty seriously, don’t they?) can’t forgive the Australians for so many things. For setting up shop nearby. For being one of the best countries in the world without producing anything luxurious. For not being a part of thousand years imperial history. For being white and speaking English. For being a democracy.

The supporters, the Italians, and the football domination were not enough, anyway, that Evergrande supporters had to ram Western Sydney’s bus, had to terrorize their night, and yes, had to attack Covic’s eyes again with lasers. So much for their trust for Lippi, Diamanti, and the domestic players.

Tonight Evergrande has clinched another Chinese Super League title, and the league’s final top scorers tell the story – out of the top ten goal scorers, only one is Chinese. Wu Lei from Shanghai SIPG. The others might follow Evergrande’s strategy – defend and let the foreigners score.

3. Al Sadd (Qatar)

Play to win

 

When a Qatari talks about “The Boss” in football, he (hardly a she) talks about Al Sadd, winners of 2011 AFC Champions League. I saw on TV the terrible semi final match against Suwon, when Mamadou Niang (formerly a striker for Marseille and Fenerbahce) scored when Suwon thought Al Sadd would’ve waited for the on pitch treatment for Cho Sung-hwan. Well, if Jose Mourinho has not aware of the seriousness of head injury in 2014, so would Niang back in 2011. After the brawl (involving a pitch invader), Al Sadd’s Korean defender Lee Jung-soo walked out of the scene from frustration, asking to be subbed. It’s said he was censured by the management for not standing up for the club. But when he had to choose in 2012 between Al Sadd and Evergrande, he sticks with the lesser evil until today.

To my pain, Al Sadd defeated Jeonbuk to win the Champions League and defeated hosts Kashiwa Reysol in the Club World Cup.

4. Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma (Korea, 1989-2013)

A bad Korean club? Not that they did brawl in Champions League finals, but because they were owned by an evil organization – the Moonies. Or officially, the Church of Unification, who’s fond of marrying strangers based on the founder’s hunch (he’s literally the brother of Jesus, you know). After being a feeble team in the 1990s, in 1999 the club relocated from Cheonan to Seongnam, a satellite city of Seoul, and had more capital to attract top Korean players and decent foreigners. They dominated K-League in early 2000s but lost the 2004 Champions League final to Al Ittihad. In 2010 they finally won the Champions League and Sasa Ognenovski became a famous Socceroo.

Praise Jesus, in 2013 Sun Myung-moon after committing decades of crimes including asking Americans to forgive Richard Nixon, financing a terrible movie on the Battle of Inchon, creating The Washington Times, and evading tax. And oh, brainwashing people, intimidating those who want to leave his sect, and being cozy with Christian and Islamic religious nuts in United States (while waging war against Christian churches in Korea, interesting).

So with Sun bit the dust, the Moonies had little interest in running the club and sold it to the city of Ansan. After protests from club supporters, it was purchased by the government of Seongnam and now it’s a nice club. It’s unknown if Seongnam players were forced or persuaded to join Unification Church activities, but certainly many notable players from Korea and overseas used it as a stepping stone before moving to relatively saner clubs in Asia.

The four clubs I described were not necessarily evil in the sense of Dr. Evil from Evil University. Their players were professional footballers, not criminals. But they grow up in countries and societies that value wealth, ego, showmanship, and think little about social justice, communities, and ethics. In the case of Ilhwa Chunma, it grew up in the curious phenomenon that in Korea, that is industrious and impressible toward charismatic cults at the same time. I’m just glad that Sun’s death brought the end to the cult’s grip on the football club – a dark chapter in Korean history is behind us.

The same cannot be said for Saudi Arabia, China, and Qatar and many other Asian countries. I was one of Asians who deplored Australian entry into AFC, but well, the high hope that Australia can cure some diseases of Asian football is taking place, one step at a time. I’ve heard that some Australians demand AFC to drop sanction on Nasser Al Shamrani, while knowing it won’t happen. I still don’t know how did Koreans react to Niang’s unsportsmanlike behavior, besides calling Al Sadd as “Al Badd”.

But if Japanese media won’t talk (today Japanese supporters marched against racism – couldn’t find the news, sadly), then I applaud Australia’s loud call. Western Sydney Wanderers have proven that money and power cannot buy love. Let Asians take heed.

Six things we learnt from AFC Champions League Group Stage

1. Qatar – numbers mean nothing

Like many things in Qatar, the Stars League can offer more than its neighbors. The payroll might not be as interesting as in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but Doha seems to be a more interesting place to live and has better football atmosphere. We’re talking about the Asian Cup and the World Cup host here (which, well, who knows, might get the fourth ticket to Brazil). Many Bahrain players move there to escape the political prosecution and complications, and supposedly, with a Qatari club as the defending champions, a Qatar club can go further than UAE’s, while the living condition is more pleasant than in Saudi.

Not so. All Qatari club, four of them, crashed. First, unlike Liverpool 2005, the champions Al-Sadd was not competing. They could be the third best club in the world after Kashiwa Reysol (okay, that’s not true), but they finished sixth in the 2010-11 Stars League season. They won’t compete in ACL next year either, finished fourth (the fourth ticket was taken by Emir Cup’s winners Al Gharafa).

So, Al Rayyan (Afonso Alves, ex-Middlesbrough) and Lehkwiya (Nam Tae-Hee) scored only two wins. Al Gharafa (Ze Roberto & ex-Urawa Edmilson) got three times draw – although facing Persepolis and Al Hilal would leave you a little chance of qualifying.  Al Arabi….certainly the worst. Six losses, four goals for against sixteen against.

I’ve said that there’s a ray of light shining for UAE since the Olympics qualification. It is, with Al Jazira topping Group A and Bani Yas overcoming Pakhtakor. Al Nasr and Al Shabab certainly crashed and ranked below their Qatari rivals, but the Emirates are still having in the game.

2. Can Saudi football redeem itself?

Certainly Saudi Pro League still have the two most fearsome clubs in Asia – Al Ittihad and Al Hilal. In the past both clubs could draw more than 30 thousands to an ACL match, although that’s not the case now. They are, however, are still powered by local players. In fact each of them has only two non-Muslim players – Paulo Jorge and Fabrice Ondama in Ittihad and Christian Wilhelmsson and Yoo Byung-Soo in Hilal, which are flourishing far away from La Coruna and Incheon.

Of course, club success can be powered by good management and national failures can be influenced by terrible FA administration, negative state intervention (including choosing a crappy or inflexible manager), and lack of motivation. It’s hard to describe nationalism in an absolute monarchy – Hegel had found it in the 1800s. Al Hilal, Al Ahli, and Al Ittihad have the good chance to go to quarter finals (and eliminating UAE clubs if they do so), and certainly they aim to reclaim the champions title, last won by a Saudi side in 2005. If they can do it, then the FA have to follow up with the Asian Cup 2015 project.

 

3. Adelaide are still the only reliable Australian club in the ACL

In A-League, they can go from top 3 to bottom 3 in alternating seasons. Adelaide qualified to this year’s ACL through playoff. But their experience and flair against the northerners count year after year, while Brisbane and Central Coast prove that unlike the national team, Aussie clubs are not first rate (league and clubs managements included). Adelaide destroyed two former champions, Pohang and Gamba, and could become the favorites against Nagoya. Bruce Djite might fit as Australia’s Emile Heskey, but Dario Vidosic has my vote to be a Socceroo regular, and Sergio van Dijk is the best forward Indonesia has never had.

 

4. These are testing times for Korean teams.

Finally, the fallout of last year’s bribe scandals is here. Only Ulsan proved the quality of a Korean team, and Seongnam were lucky they were in an equally boring group with half of the group’s games ended in draws  (hey, draws without losses is something to be proud of. Just ask New Zealand fans). The supposedly exciting Pohang lost in competition to Bunyodkor (another sign of Uzbek resilience against the Japan-Korea block), while I’m bit ashamed of praising Lee Dong-Gook in my last post, seeing how Jeonbuk fell. It seems that the life and death of Jeonbuk are decided by how he’s doing on the match day instead of the teamwork Eninho, Kim Jung-Woo, and Kim Sang-Sik. Hugo Droguett is promising, but it seems like he needs more time to be a worthy partner to D.G.

This is the first time Korea fail to qualify at least three clubs since the current format introduced in 2009. And I take it as a failure. Jeonbuk’s failure certainly influenced by the rise of Guangzhou Evergrande, which deserves its own talking point, but even Seongnam were close to fail were it faced more aggressive opponents.

 

5. Guangzhou Evergrande continue its empire building

Manchester City teach that money can build your glory, earlier than what you expect. that’s what’s happened in Guangzhou, probably the best-run metropolis in China, which scouted and nurtured South Americans who really delivered. If Chelsea rely on Africans and Arsenal on continental Europeans (and Manchester United, at one point, on the Celts), then Guangzhou can be forgiven to rely on Muriqui, Cleo, and Conca for the attack and Paulao for the defence. Still, they needed six others Chinese to hold the line – and it’s good to see Cho Won-Hee redeemed after terrible times in Wigan and Suwon.

Sadly, pride rather than ambition might influence the replacement of Lee Jang-Soo with Marcello Lippi. Evergrande RE just wants to boast that it employs the Italian legend rather than trusting a coach that can ensure its domination in China and in Asia. Just like Roberto di Matteo’s employment in Chelsea is still not ensured even if he’ll win them the UEFA Champions League tonight. Owners, after all, care more about employing famous generals than having the most suited general for the club.

 

6. Gamba aside, J. League clubs are fine

Oh the irony. Newcomers FC Tokyo, previously the West Ham of Tokyo football, did really fine. Unstable Japanese champions Kashiwa passed the test with the last day’s coup against Jeonbuk (a plus point, if you consider Japanese stage fright against Korean teams). Nagoya followed Seongnam’s policy of two wins four draws, and yet they still prevailed against the supposedly threatening Brisbane and Tianjin.

So, why do we need to speak about Gamba? Perhaps because they are the former Asian champions. Perhaps they are used to be one the most strongest teams in Japan year in and year out. And now in the J. League, their mission for the season would be to escape relegation, just one month into the completion.

I’ll leave the deeper discussion about Gamba to my good friend Ben Mabley, who’s considering himself Osakan. I counted myself as a Gamba supporter, but then again, I don’t feel the passion I have when I’m supporting Manchester United (come on, I feel bad writing this). Maybe had I lived in Japan, I chose to live in Yokohama. Yay Marinos.